Redirecting government, solving problems

February 7, 1966


Utica, NY

We stand at a new crossroads to an uncertain future. The way ahead is not charted. We know only that it will be full of difficulty and danger.

It may seem strange to talk now of new crossroads and new turnings. We are, after all, in the midst of the longest period of sustained expansion in our history. Our power and wealth are greater than ever before. More of our children go on to college, and even today’s high school students learn as much as some collegians of yesterday.

Every day, some voyager to the frontiers of science returns with tidings of new possibilities, new vistas, now opportunities for ourselves and our children.

And following the election of 1964, the federal government fulfilled old dreams by the dozens: Medicare, aid to education, voting rights, immigration reform.

The inheritance of the New Deal is fulfilled. There is not a problem for which there is not a program. There is not a problem for which money is not being sent. There is not a problem or a program on which dozens or hundreds or thousands of bureaucrats are not earnestly at work.

But does this represent a solution to our problems? Manifestly it does not. We have spent ever-increasing amounts on our schools. Yet far too many children still graduate totally unequipped to contribute to themselves, their families, or the communities in which they live…

We have spent unprecedented sums on buildings of all kinds. Yet our communities seem less beautiful and sensible every year.

We have spent billions for agricultural price supports. Yet the rural economy continues to decline, and more and more people leave the farms for life in the urban centers.

We have spent billions on armaments and on foreign aid. Yet the world is still unsafe, and our position more precarious and painful as time goes by.

Why is this so?

The answer is one we have always known, though sometimes forgotten.

Money by itself is no answer. Programs which are misdirected accomplish nothing. To work at something merely because it does no devious harm is not enough.

There are things more important than spending.

Their names are imagination, courage, and determination.

And for those of us who speak to the public—to our fellow citizens—there is an especial fourth requirement: candor.

A few examples will illustrate.

One is welfare. Opponents of welfare have always said that welfare is degrading, both to the giver and the recipient. They have said that it destroys self-respect, that it lowers incentive, that it is contrary to American ideals.

Most of us deprecated and disregarded these criticisms. People were in need; obviously, we felt to help people in trouble was the right thing to do.

But in our urge to help, we also disregarded an elementary fact. For the criticisms of welfare do have a center of truth, and they are confirmed by the evidence.

Recent studies have shown, for example, that higher welfare payments often encourage students to drop out of school, that they encourage families to disintegrate, and that they often lead to lifelong dependency. Cecil Monroe, head of the Philadelphia NAACP, once said that welfare was the worst thing that could have happened to the Negro. Even for such an extreme position, there is factual support.

Because most of us were committed to doing something we thought was good, we ignored the criticisms. But we also therefore ignored the real need—which was, and remains, decent, dignified jobs for all…

[Another] example: We have always operated our schools on the theory that the school system itself was right: if a child failed, it was the child who was at fault. So we put labels on children who failed. We called them culturally disadvantaged, or retarded, or perhaps lazy or stupid.

But the results of this policy, are that one quarter to one third of our young men cannot meet even the minimal mental qualifications for the armed forces: that over half the graduates of many of our high schools are unequipped for even the most rudimentary jobs; that hundreds of thousands of children waste away in institutions.

We can no longer afford this waste. If our present educational methods cannot do better, then they must be changed to fit the students, just as doctors change a treatment which fails to cure a sick patient. We must now regard a student’s failure as the school’s failure, and as our failure—and hold ourselves responsible for our children’s shortcomings.

…There is no question which does not require the same new thinking, the same willingness to date…

We have committed our surplus food to feed the starving abroad, and we have offered to help in curbing population growth; but will we act on the scale necessary to prevent the mass starvation which our present level of effort cannot forestall?

We have abandoned isolationism, and made commitments in every corner of the world; but will we be equally ready to abandon the status quo, and associate ourselves with the rising forces of revolution—in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia?…

Lincoln said it best: “We must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”

To say it, however, is not to do it. It is not easy, in the middle of one’s life or political career, to say that the old horizons are too limited, that our education must begin again, that new visions must replace the old if our vitality is to remain and be renewed…

[Yet] surely we must be determined to do this.